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Part 3 of the This Is Bigger Than E-Learning Series

In Part Two of this series, we spoke to experts who work with at-risk children from a medical and mental health perspective. In addition to having specialized medical and mental health needs, children often have legal needs, and sometimes may be at the center of a custody dispute or even an abuse and neglect case.

In Part Three, we are going to speak with three judicial officers: Lori Morgan, Magistrate Judicial Officer, Allen Superior Court; Marie Kern, Magistrate Judicial Officer, Marion Circuit Court, Paternity Division; and Jennifer Hubartt, Magistrate Judicial Officer, Marion Superior Court, Juvenile Division. All three judicial officers serve children through their work as judges, and we think you’ll be interested to hear their thoughts about the impact of the pandemic on the children they see in their courtrooms.

QUESTION 1: How are you doing in these times? What does an average day look like?

Judge Morgan: Things have been very busy and somewhat stressful during the quarantine. There are still great fears from all sectors about the possibility of contracting the coronavirus. Our court has taken great precautions to ensure that our courtrooms are set-up to be compliant with the CDC’s social distancing recommendations and that we are otherwise following all of their recommendations. An average day is very busy. We are working from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every day. On days that we hear CHINS proceedings, we are often working through some, if not all, of the noon hour because of the congestion of the Court’s calendar.

Judge Kern: Initially, quarantine was rough—I’m pretty extroverted and the abruptness of being so isolated was challenging. There were technical delays initially in my ability to work remotely, given the size of our county judicial system, so that did not help my state of mind. It was frustrating not being able to work efficiently the first few weeks. Once I was able to begin hearing cases again, things improved. Once some of the quarantine restrictions eased and people began to become more comfortable meeting individually or in small groups, I regained some of the social connections I missed so much and that helped tremendously. 

I am hearing my normal caseload that I covered before quarantine and have been since the middle of May. I was able to start hearing emergency matters in April. I can sleep a little later than normal, which is nice, because I don’t drive downtown every day, but the work demand is the same as before, if not higher. I rarely take a “lunch break” now, frequently eating while I review my queue or prep for cases. I find it much more difficult to stop working at the end of the day than I did in an office environment. I just think it is harder to have that separation of work/life balance when your work is sitting on the dining room table.

Judge Hubartt: I have been amazed at how the Marion Superior Court, Juvenile Division, has pivoted to remote proceedings and utilized and developed technology to keep the Court up and running. We have been doing essential hearings, such as initial hearings, since 3/16/20, and by the third week of April, we were holding daily dockets for all judicial officers. The Marion Superior Court has tremendous leadership in its Executive Committee which has shown a commitment to maintaining operations under the circumstances of the pandemic. I hold one or two session per day, depending on the day, and also have continued regular participation in work group and committees through Zoom, WebEx, Teams, or other virtual formats. Our judicial officers hold weekly virtual meetings to stay in touch and informed. I have also presented a couple of CLEs during the quarantine and participated in several which were presented. The Juvenile Court’s partners and stakeholders have also demonstrated a great ability to work remotely and collaborate virtually during the past several months. Juvenile Court has started in-person operations this week, albeit on a reduced and limited basis, to handle contested matters such as factfinding hearings.

QUESTION 2:  What are you seeing during Covid times that you did not see before?

Judge Morgan: I am seeing people with higher stress levels than I saw before the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m seeing higher stress levels both in and out of the court system. I must say, however, that I am also seeing extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity towards others. In these COVID-19 times, I have observed people selflessly giving of their time and talents to assist those who are suffering from or affected by the virus.

Judge Kern: The number of unrepresented litigants participating in hearings is through the roof! So many cases are going to hearing than ever before, in large part because unrepresented litigants are joining the hearings like never before. This is really eye opening, in terms of our ability to provide access to the courts to those unrepresented parties. When things like transportation, parking, childcare, missing time from work or the fear of going to jail are removed, they are more actively involved and participating in the proceedings. This is both good and bad—good that they are more involved, bad for the judicial officers who are hearing an increased number of cases. I’ll be honest, it is a struggle to keep up right now.

Judge Hubartt: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to several predictable issues, such as how parents and children could participate in parenting time or how service providers could deliver services to families and children. Once again, I have been impressed at the ability of the child welfare system to pivot to virtual and remote delivery of services. There have also been a number of unforeseen situations, such as the complexity now with a travel request for a child filed with the Court. The Court must balance the new considerations with a number of requests or issues which were fairly standard prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The loss of employment for a number of parents has also led to an increased need for assistance with concrete items for families, from rent payments, to food, cleaning supplies, and similar items.

QUESTION 3:  What are your biggest concerns right now regarding the children you work with or are responsible for?

Judge Morgan: I am concerned that they may have fears about the coronavirus and about their futures that they are not expressing or communicating to others and that therefore we may not be adequately helping them to address their fears. I’m also concerned that the stress that parents are under as a result of the coronavirus could have a negative impact on the children emotionally or physically if the parents’ stress is not managed appropriately.

Judge Kern: Consistency and safety. Their worlds have been completely turned upside down by this quarantine. Now their ability to safely return to school is uncertain, parents are in serious conflict over the issues raised by Covid-19 and children have lost a lot of the consistent support they had through school, sports, extra-curricular activities, play dates and even things like going to the park or a museum, out to eat or seeing extended family. The strain on parents, especially single parents, is always a concern because no one can be “on” 100% all the time. I am worried about not having all those outside eyes on children who are potentially at risk for abuse or neglect.

Judge Hubartt: The isolation that quarantine has caused for many families and the issues which could arise from the same. Less child abuse or neglect reporting is a good example. An increase in domestic violence is another. We are also concerned with the ability of children to learn and grow “remotely” as many of our families lack the means to provide the technology, such as laptops, or capability, such as WiFi, to achieve the same.

QUESTION 4:  In your line of work, what is the biggest need you see for kids?

Judge Morgan: There is a need for facilities that will perform diagnostic evaluations on children and that will also help us to determine whether the medications that the children are taking are the appropriate medications for their diagnoses. There is also a need for trauma informed care services for children, as well as behavioral consultants, educational tutoring service(s), independent living services and counseling services.

Judge Kern: That is a hard question. The ability to maintain their education in a manner that will be safe for them and others around them is a huge issue. So many children want to return to the classroom so they can see friends and teachers and for some, have breakfast and lunch. I worry about what happens to them developmentally, if we continue to isolate for the foreseeable future. How does that impact their ability to develop their social skills and integrate with others, especially in the current culture we as a country are facing today?  Do we risk creating further boundaries and less social acceptance with continued quarantine? I don’t have good answers.

I am concerned about children’s access to services that they may only receive through school and the ability to have a “safe place” to communicate issues within the home they may be experiencing if they are unable to return to school. At risk children are likely being impacted more than children from generally stable homes—parents are under tremendous stress as a result of this pandemic. When you add pandemic stress to the stress those at-risk families had before quarantine, the potential for an increase of violence and abuse in the home is exponentially increased.

Judge Hubartt:  As previously mentioned, the concrete needs of many families have increased as their often fragile financial stability has been compromised further by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Juvenile Court collaborated with a number of community partners at the  end of June to provide assistance to families in a revised celebration of National Reunification Month (revised to a contactless event due to the pandemic) and the turn-out was extraordinary. It really demonstrated the number of families in need right here in our community.

QUESTION 5:  What could we as a community do differently if we ever see a situation like this again? 

Judge Morgan: I think that coronavirus pandemic was a once in a lifetime event that no one could have anticipated. Given that fact, schools, attorneys/courts, doctor’s offices, etc. had to scramble to put policies and procedures in place to protect their employees and the public that they serve. In my opinion, everyone did the best that they could in this unprecedented situation. Moving forward, all of those entities and/or individuals can prepare a plan of action about how to handle their business/operations should a similar crisis arise in the future.

Judge Kern: If we find ourselves as unprepared for something like this in the future, then shame on us, as this is likely the most eye-opening experience of my life. Courts need to have an emergency response plan in place, so that delays in access to the courts are counted in days, not weeks. Attorneys need to begin incorporating disaster contingencies into agreements and suggested orders to courts, in the event of similar circumstances in the future. For example, contemplate parenting time in the event of future quarantines, designate temporary third-party custodians in the event that both parents could become incapacitated, etc. We as courts need to being thinking about things like supervised parenting time when agencies are closed and public places are not available. I don’t have good answers at this point, but if the discussion doesn’t begin, we may find ourselves in the same position in the very foreseeable future, with no better solutions than we have now.

Judge Hubartt: Each agency and entity needs to consider what lessons have been learned from the pandemic and hold on to those things that we did very well and improve those that struggled. We should all be prepared to pivot to remote operations in the foreseeable future as well as re-evaluate how we conducted our in-person operations pre-pandemic. There is a lot of room for improvement and for growth. We are positioned to do better now because we have in the face of this crisis. We need to continue the trend moving forward and put new focus on the health and well-being of the public, families, and children that we serve.